People get sick. In most cases there is little we can do to prevent it. The great thing about the National Health Service is that it is always there (or should be) for people when they need it.
Some illnesses, though, are preventable. Some illnesses are caused by employers who show a singular lack of concern for the health of those who work for them. Over the years many industries have proved to be unhealthy. Frequently the employers know or can guess this because they see the big picture, they have the sickness absence records, they have access to the research.
It’s usually only later that employees find out the dangers they have been facing – frequently too late to safeguard their own health.
One example of this is the asbestos industry. Employers were well aware of the dangers of producing and working with asbestos, but that did not stop them continually putting their workers at risk. Profits always had to be protected. As the public perception of the risks became greater, employers had to be more inventive – they opened factories in depressed areas, areas of high unemployment, where workers – however reluctantly – felt they had to take the jobs.
Many of those who worked in the industry a few decades ago now suffer from asbestosis and related diseases. Their health is ruined. The quality of their lives is ruined. The one thing that has helped, a little, is that they have often won financial compensation for the grotesque damage to their health and wellbeing.
Workers have won compensation primarily because trade unions have fought for it. For all the criticisms one can make of the trade union movement, our record on fighting for health and safety has been sound. It has been our unions that have been at the forefront of every fight for protective legislation. It was our unions that campaigned for health and safety reps to have statutory powers.
It is distressing to see that we suffered a serious reverse last week. The House of Lords has ruled that sufferers of pleural plaques will no longer be entitled to compensation.
Pleural plaques are almost aways caused by exposure to asbestos, and are associated with a greatly increased risk of developing fatal conditions like mesothelioma or asbestosis. Something like 14,000 cases come up every year. Until the House of Lords ruling last week, workers with pleural plaques had been entitled to compensation – a right established for over 2o years.
The insurers are happy. They argued that no compensation should be paid because the lung damage had not quite yet turned into life threatening illness. The House of Lords supported them. Sufferers now have to wait for compensation until their whole quality of life becomes intolerable.
I don’t always agree with my General Secretary, Derek Simpson, but he was absolutely right to oppose the House of Lords decision. Derek said, “This is a harsh decision which will affect thousands of people with pleural plaques now and in the future.”
This was a significant setback, and one we have to resist. Trade unions must continue to fight to safeguard the health and safety of all our union members and those who work alongside us. The insurers and the bosses believe they have saved themselves £1.4 bn over the coming years. It’s our job to ensure they haven’t.